The “No Top Ramen” Rule (or 4 things we did when we started TOPO)
I get asked quite often for my learnings in launching TOPO. With 3 years of hindsight, I believe there were 4 critical tactics that allowed us to launch quickly into the market and grow our business out of the gate. For some context, TOPO was bootstrapped and Scott and I (the founders) made a “No Top Ramen” agreement, which meant that we would build this business to make money immediately. This pact drove urgency to get out into the market, and forced us to make quick but solid decisions that were also realistic since there was only two of us. There were some bad decisions, but there were four that stood out that any business starting out can execute.
Build the brand from day one. Our CEO and Founder, Scott Albro, was maniacal about the brand from the moment the company was founded. Unlike many services businesses, we were not building this company to be a lifestyle job. As Scott said, “If in two years, this is just a lifestyle business, we are shutting it down.” We believed (and still believe) TOPO could be a big company so we built the brand based on what we wanted to be – cutting edge, high class, but cool and fun.
Scott enforced the brand in everything we did from small and seemingly innocuous things, like the computers we used (Macs), to big things like the website. The website is a great example of how the brand worked to our advantage. When we built the website, it had to look like something a cool web development/design shop would design. We copied Optimizely (I believe this is our first confession on this matter), as we knew they tested their design extensively so we just copied it. I remember debriefing a B2B SaaS customer on why he bought from TOPO. He said, “I knew the minute I saw your website that you were like us and could help.”
I was not enthused about the brand building exercise. My background is in sales and demand generation so my first instinct is to focus everything on meetings, pipeline, and deals. There were tense moments early on before I embraced Scott’s vision. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I realize how crucial that brand adherence was to our initial growth and continues to be critical to how we are perceived in the market.
Sign up for a quota of meetings and meet that quota. On day one, the founders made a pact that we would each meet with a minimum of 10 people per week. To emphasize the point, week one of the company’s existence, we both had a quota of 10 meetings to hit. These meetings required serious hustle because you don’t have an SDR, brand, etc. We downloaded our LinkedIn contacts into Excel, scored them, and started reaching out to people. We would meet people anywhere, including via Hangout.
For the first 6 months of the company, we would meet with anyone in the B2B tech industry that we felt could help us. We judged people by title, knowing that Directors and above typically have better networks, and by their company, often meeting with lower-level contacts at target companies.This process worked because we ended every call with one simple question, “Who are the 1-2 people in your network that you think we should talk to?” We were reminded of the old adage that people want to help people they like. Almost every meeting resulted in a valuable introduction and the pipeline of meetings kept filling.
For the first 12 months, our deals came exclusively from referrals from these meetings. Also, if we missed our engagement number, pipeline suffered. An alternate title to this best practice might be, “Great things happen when you engage directly with your target market”. On another note, we have basically kept the weekly engagement rule through the entire existence of the company albeit with lower quotas.
Create long-form content and “give away the farm”. Recently, I have been asked the following question multiple times,“Should I gate or ungate my content?” My answer is to ungate it, especially early in your business’ lifecycle. We wrote blog posts that most marketers would not give away without a completed registration form. The perfect example was a 4,000+ word blog post we wrote on sales development: Sales Development: A Proven Framework for Success. The post contained a lot of our early methodology and in depth content. Our goal was not to drive leads, but to show as many people as possible that we were trusted resources on the topic.
We actually did get leads, but they occurred after people read the post and filled out the contact form to find out if we can help them design a similar program. An encouraging benefit of this practice was walking into sales calls and having prospects ask us specific questions around our posts. The big takeaway is to write at least one definitive, comprehensive piece and produce it on your blog or another ungated platform. The leads will come later.
Host your own events. As Scott likes to describe our initial decision to host events, “We were weighing whether it would work or not and then just said ‘let’s do it’ and figure it out. If 5 people come, they will love it and come back for more.” We created two rules for events that were some of the most important decisions we would make in the business. Rule #1 was that our events would be practitioner only. No consultants, no vendors (except for the sponsors) and the speakers and the audience would be practitioners. Rule #2 was specificity wins. Our speakers would present the details on how they operationalize.
Our first event was a success (20 attendees on a reasonable goal of 15), and we have done events every quarter since. The audience has continued to grow and now we have a hugely successful annual event, the TOPO Summit. The event strategy was critical early on as it allowed us to engage with more customers face-to-face, deepen existing relationships, and create new ones. Many of the early event attendees became customers, and almost as many referred their peers to us.
About the Author: Craig Rosenberg is the co-founder and Chief Analyst at TOPO.